I’m not one to give the new year much significance. It seems an imposed and arbitrary marker. While reflection upon the Earth completing one orbit around the sun does contain an offering of awe, there is no need for a churchly calendar to determine when that happens. And as with all events that once commemorated and reaffirmed the human’s place among the natural, spiritual, and cosmological, the new year has been emptied and rendered into spectacle. Now it is more a reminder of the severing of our beings from that which we co-created over millennia and has been ensnared in a system that demands forgetting, produces oblivion, and sells it in the name of progress.
It rained earlier this week for the first time in months. Heavy and steady. From where I sit, the nearby peaks are coated in snow. The sky is clear; the air is crisp and juniper scented; the birds flit and chatter among the trees. Not long ago, those peaks weren’t visible, as the air was thick with the smoke of numerous fires, and the only rain that fell was ash. While dates are ultimately circumstantial, today carries a feel of cleansing or reprieve from a year engulfed by flames, fears, breathlessness, and losses.
Last week, in a class I teach, we were discussing the concept of “posthuman suffering,” which can be understood in two different ways. In the mundane sense, it is the experience of a negative emotion resulting from our dependence on technology and especially when a technology fails. For example, if you must complete an online task for work or school and the internet goes out, you may feel frustrated, irresponsible, or inadequate, despite the fault of the situation and your resulting emotional experience of it lying completely with the technology and not with you. In a deeper sense, posthuman suffering manifests as “ontological angst” brought on by the awareness that we are biological entities dependent upon technology in order to survive, to know ourselves, and to know the world around us. This awareness has implications for the construction of our sense of self as human beings when simply to be is contingent on a technological other distinct from us. As class was ending on that point, a student shared that the college just announced a temporary halt to in-person classes due to the coronavirus.
It is not difficult to see posthuman suffering play out in the face of this pandemic. In the US, we have seen test kits that don’t work or don’t exist, systems of technology that spread misinformation or fear, access to medical technologies denied to those who are or may be sick, etc. This is amplified by the emphatic, ever-present reminder of our biological fragility, the gaze toward technoscience to save us, and the worry and helplessness upon realizing that it might not – indeed, that it already has not for thousands of people.